So, I’ll begin where I want to lie.
Binyavanga Wainaina, who died from a stroke on May 21, was not writing for me. It was clear he was writing for himself, for Africans. Yet he seemed to be writing to me, or at least to people like me, writing against what I’d been writing.
“The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office,” he sarcastically declared in his stinging 2005 essay, “How to Write About Africa,” “refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa.” My diary entry, dated September 25, 2013, traced in all seriousness the stereotype he’d scornfully outlined, a woman who had infuriated me at Bamako’s Ministère de la Sécurité.
“[T]he African sunset is a must,” he continued. “It is always big and red.” I cringed. I had scribbled entire paragraphs on the “mango-colored descent,” a “huge crimson sinking.”
And the proverbial nail in the coffin: on “The Starving African,” he instructed that “she must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment.” My diary entry after a day at the camps for IDPs — internally displaced people — featured a dead ringer for this woman: nameless, rail-thin, face creased by despair.
I sat back, angry and ashamed. Without ever knowing me, Binyavanga had indelibly rendered me — as a caricature of the Westerner, with her neocolonialist gaze.
Maybe I could be forgiven, I thought desperately. It was my diary, after all. I was just trying to make sense of things. Five months into living in Mali, nothing was as I expected. For one, I was labeled toubab here — a white person, a dramatic departure from being Indian, unequivocally brown against the mostly white landscape of Canada, where I’d grown up. For another, the people here were confusing, with their multiplicity of traditions and languages: strains of Islam and traditional Animism converged with French, Bambara, Bozo, Songhay, Tamasheq — to name a few. I was dazzled. Foolishly, before coming, I’d thought myself prepared because I’d read Naipaul and Adichie. Now, it was obvious they’d been writing about very different West Africas than the one where I found myself. I hadn’t even thought to read a Malian writer.
And there was my job: “aid worker.” I’d pictured delivering food supplies to civilians fleeing the recent militant attacks in the country’s north. Instead, I sat in an air-conditioned office in the capital, toggling between budgets and fundraising proposals. Toubabs were easy targets for kidnapping and petty theft; it was rarely safe for us to go into “the field.” The job I ended up doing could have been done from anywhere. There was quite literally no need for me here.
But I didn’t write about that. Nor did I write about lazing around the guesthouse pool, or renting a pirogue big enough for 20 to float down the Niger. And worst of all, I rarely wrote about my Malian colleagues: well-educated, well-spoken women and men. The common expat complaints about “locals” didn’t apply: their NGO jobs didn’t seem to be “just jobs” for them, nor were they out to make money any way they could. But they also didn’t believe that NGOs would save them, or that they needed saving. But again, I neither thought nor wrote about these things in any great depth — not even in my diary, for myself, which I realized belatedly was worse, even less forgivable than writing for an audience.
Instead, I filled my diary with sunsets, helpless and corrupt Africans, feverish fears of rebel attacks and kidnappings. I wrote about what I found interesting — that is, exotic — and always in vague terms.
“Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions,” Binyavanga sardonically advised. He didn’t have to worry.
Finishing his essay, I was, of course, crushed. It shouldn’t have taken such razor-sharp lines to shake me awake, but it did. It took him.
I read him again a year and half later. This time, it was both a very similar and a very different experience. I want to think it’s because I was different. Now, I was in Uganda, where mzungus — the East African equivalent of “white’” person — were generally free to explore, to go into “the field.” I gleefully took bodas and matatus — motorcycle taxis and inexpensive minibuses — across Uganda and Kenya, talking to farmers and pastoralists, finding out what they didn’t know about their own professions (yes, I see the irony), so their “knowledge gaps” could be filled by all-knowing NGOs.
Gloria Kiconco, a Ugandan writer and my friend, lent me her copy of Binyavanga’s memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place (2011). “You may not get all the nuances,” she warned. “He wrote it mainly for his African readers, but you’ll still walk away having seen another side of the story.”
The story begins with his middle-class childhood in Nakuru, followed by his years in South Africa as post-electoral violence shattered Kenya, and ends with him finding success as a writer. But the book is about much more than that. The part seared in my memory, for example, is one in which nothing happens: we join him in a matatu, next to an elderly woman who has just won the van’s sympathy over an offense committed against her. The people “sigh with her. For a moment we become a common personality, and she is chatting back and forth with people all over the matatu.” And then, he imagines a mzungu, “a Bavarian”
says something poisonous, like, “please shut up Madam, can’t you see I am reading?” — and the moment this happens, this man senses the small shift and stiffness inside the vehicle, the sudden silence. […] [H]e knows exactly what mood he has spoilt, but not at all what she said or did, or what that meant. […] And somebody, the conductor maybe, and this becomes a truly appropriate word — conductor — will send us all into a new series of patterns by saying hallo mzungu, and jerking about in a deliberately unpatterned way, but close to our idea of a foreign Bavarian clumsiness, and we all burst out laughing at this joke with no punchline. […] [H]e is not proposing violence by this parody but is defusing awkward patterns, killing their threat. And we all get it, even the imaginary cliché Bavarian leans back and laughs.
This imagined account of events I’d seen unfold a hundred times — my own patience snapping or about to snap at conversations I didn’t understand, at jokes seemingly made at my expense — was a revelation. Interactions, large and small, assumed new layers. And beyond that, I saw for the first time how nonfiction could deceive a reader in the best and most meaningful of ways. How it could transfix us as our imaginary worlds fell apart and were knit back together.
Finishing his memoir only left me ravenous for more. I read his short stories, his opinion pieces, everything I could find. By now, he was prolific, famous not only for his writing but for having come out as gay in a country where homosexuality was criminalized, and for his leadership in Kwani?, the region’s top literary organization.
Across his body of work, I was struck by how he focused on Kenyans of other ethnicities, Africans of other countries, and even Asian Indians, who number 300,000 in East Africa — sizable but still a minority. In his short story, “A Day in the Life of Idi Amin,” for example, he radically reimagines the former dictator’s life: instead of becoming prime minister of Uganda in a violent coup, he winds up working for an Asian Indian family in Nakuru. The irony is heavy: instead of expelling Indians from his country, as he would in 1972, he ends up servicing them — quite literally in the case of Mrs. Shah, with whom he has an affair. The story bursts with humorous revenge. And as this Idi Amin watched Bollywood movies, as his son Vishal lectured on Naipaul, as women strolled in saris and breathed cardamom, I found myself moved, catching glimpses of my own life and family. Here was a writer of such generosity that he made all sorts of people feel seen and valued, even when that wasn’t necessarily his intent.
Of course, sometimes that was his intent, in discomfiting ways. For me, still working in development, this recollection from his childhood was particularly unsettling:
This is biogas, the Swedes told us. A fecal martyr. It looks like shit — it is shit — but it has given up its gas for you. With this new fuel you can light your bulbs and cook your food. You will become balanced dieted; if you are industrious perhaps you can run a small biogas-powered posho mill and engage in income-generating activities.
We went back to class. Very excited. Heretofore our teachers had threatened us with straightforward visions of failure. Boys would end up shining shoes; girls would end up pregnant.
Now there was a worse thing to be: a user of biogas.
By now, I knew well the critiques of the development industry — that it was neocolonialist, that it stifled local economies, buying goodwill for the West while distracting from its theft of African resources. But these accusations seemed too all-or-nothing, leaving no room for nuance or exceptions. I had seen farmers’ yields improve, seen families living better with clean water and reliable electricity. Or had I? Their reactions to the biogas chilled me. It was so familiar, that excitement.
We see what we want to see and sometimes no more. If the devices were ever used, every meal cooked and bulb lit would surely have been preceded by shuddering disgust — something no aid worker would witness.
And there was something else, a question that hovered every time I read him: What would become of me here? Or, rather, what could I hope to become here? In his book, he recounts meeting a foreigner who speaks perfect Kiswahili — something I aspired to, something expats believed could buy belonging. But Binyavanga was only annoyed: “The man is dogmatic. […] He wants me to thank him for his cultural scrupulousness, and is unwilling to let me speak English, or not speak at all. I am not an individual. I am a cultural ambassador.”
Reading this, glimpsing my probable future, it was my turn to shudder.
I’d already been thinking of leaving when he posted about being attacked. He was in Germany, on his way to a clinic. A taxi driver, annoyed by his impaired speech (a result of the stroke he’d suffered last year), started beating him up, in full view of his neighbors.
“I feel black, dirty,” Binyavanga wrote. “I feel as if this type of thing is supposed to happen to someone like me.”
Germany has long been admired in the development industry for its generous funding to Africa. And yet, an intellectual, one of Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World,” in Germany on a prestigious fellowship, was reduced to exactly what he would’ve been reduced to 100 years earlier by colonizers.
What was I doing, I asked myself, working to “better” East Africa, when something like this happened in one of the “best” nations? It was not he who was dirty but us, I thought.
I left Africa in 2016. Since then, I’ve been writing more. All nonfiction, but little about Africa — perhaps precisely because people tell me I should. I should write “about” Africa. But no one tells me to write “about” Canada. That would be banal, too much like anywhere. The West is the default. To write a good story “about” Canada, or rather one set in Canada, would be difficult. It would require nuance, careful plotting, intriguing characters, beautiful language. It would require good writing, in other words.
This, to me, was Binyavanga’s greatest legacy and lesson: there is no writing “about” a place — even your own home — worth doing if it comes easily. Any writing worth reading, and remembering, requires unreasonable hope and constant uncertainty. He summarized it best in One Day I Will Write About This Place, as he started what would become his life’s work: “It’s time to try to make some sort of sense of things on the written page. At least there, they can be shaped. I doubt myself the moment I think this.”
Thank you, Binyavanga, for doubting, and for shaping anyway: words, writers, worlds.
Raksha Vasudevan is an Indian-Canadian economist and writer. Her work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Catapult, LitHub, High Country News, Roads & Kingdoms, Africaisacountry, and more. She tweets @RakshaVasudevan.